The Arab World Geographer
Forum on The 2003 War on/in Iraq

The War in Iraq and American Freedom

Walter L. Hixson

Department of History, University of Akron, Akron, OH 44325 -1902 U.S.A.

Historians of United States foreign policy will strive for many years to gain a full understanding of the American invasion of Iraq. The conflict will be analyzed, within the context of Middle East geopolitics, as a “clash of civilizations,” as an imperialist drive for abundant oil reserves, as a determined march to rid the world of a dangerous dictator, and as a morally upright quest for “Iraqi freedom.” This last, focussing on a discourse of freedom, offers a meaningful avenue of inquiry.

The discourse or, more conventionally, the rhetoric embodied in the words “Operation Iraqi Freedom” illuminates national identity in the context of United States foreign policy. Throughout its history the United States has raised the banner of freedom (and democracy) to mobilize national and international support for imperial foreign policies. European settlers invoked Godly and civilizing discourses to justify war against and even the extermination of indigenous “savages.” Continental imperialists justified the Mexican War of the mid-19th century as “Manifest Destiny”—divine-sanctioned authority to seize California, Texas, and the southwest. Following a bloody Civil War to affirm the national union, a revived Manifest Destiny sanctioned the turn of the century imperial wars, as Washington defeated the Spanish empire to establish hegemony over the Caribbean and began to carve out an Asian empire through a savage assault on the Philippines. A Wilsonian discourse of “war to end all wars,” as well as a visionary quest to make the world “safe for democracy,” sanctioned U.S. involvement in World War I. The United States fought for a “free” Europe and Asia in World War II.

The Cold War institutionalized global intervention to protect the “Free World” from communist “totalitarianism.” While the Soviet empire ensconced itself in Eastern Europe and, together with China, promoted “wars of national liberation,” the United States waged the Cold War through its superior economic power, cultural influence, and direct military intervention, most notably in Korea and Vietnam. Washington also used covert operations to pursue its national security agenda. Following a CIA-sponsored coup in Iran in 1953, for example, the United States proclaimed the Persian nation part of the “Free World,” even as it enthroned the repressive regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Officials trumpeted their success in Iran until Shi’ite Islamic fundamentalists seized power in 1979. The Iranian revolution, in conjunction with the simultaneous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, ushered Ronald Reagan—a man long considered too conservative to serve as president—into the White House. Reagan, a Hollywood actor hailed as the “Great Communicator,” took the lead role in a revival of U.S. patriotic chauvinism. “Victory” in the Cold War, combined with righteous anger over the rise of “terrorism,” culminating in 9 September 2001, ushered in the most virulent expression of aggressive American nationalism since the Vietnam War.

Thus one can perceive a remarkable degree of continuity in foreign policy throughout U.S. history, rooted in perceptions of national identity, with “America” as the standard bearer of freedom worldwide. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” is not unlike “Manifest Destiny,” or the many wars and political struggles sanctioned by a discourse of freedom. Moreover, as with the post–World War I red scare, the Cold War anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, the Vietnam-era campaigns against anti-war protesters, and the demonization of peace activists during the Iraq War, international conflicts provide windows of opportunity to police and relegate to the margins those who would challenge the dominant discourse of intervention in the name of freedom.

The identity-based foreign policy analyzed above carries frightening implications for the world and for the United States itself. The international consequences of the aggressive U.S. war in Iraq are potentially devastating. Anglo-American unilateral intervention has dealt a staggering blow to the quest for international co-operation in an age of unprecedented global linkages among the nations of the world. Washington and London justified their war with reference to Iraqi violations of UN-mandated arms inspections, yet the Americans and the British themselves defied the UN Security Council by going to war. The Anglo-Americans also underscored that while an Arab state would be subjected to punishing aerial assaults, invaded, and occupied for defying the UN, the state of Israel would not be constrained for its myriad violations of UN resolutions, establishment of an apartheid state, illegal occupation of Arab territories, and routine violence against Palestinians. Finally, the war obviously enhanced U.S. military presence in a region in which many states already host U.S. bases, stirring popular unrest and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, serving as a primary motive for Osama Bin Laden and his followers in the 9 September attacks.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq prompted condemnation across the globe. The “coalition of the willing” proved a tiny minority in comparison with the states in opposition, including China, Russia, Canada, Mexico, most of Western Europe, and a clear majority of developing countries in the world. Washington may well succeed in repairing its relations with its American neighbours and the Western European states—though the relationship with France will never be the same. China and Russia can be expected to avoid direct confrontation with the United States but to steel themselves to oppose, possibly in tandem, transparent U.S. efforts to establish global hegemony. The regime in North Korea, which along with Iran and Iraq comprised President George W. Bush’s astonishingly undiplomatic “axis of evil,” hardly could be faulted for planning and possibly acting on the basis of worst-case scenarios in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In the wake in its own defiant, unilateral militarism, the United States sacrificed any moral ground on which to stand in condemning other states for aggression.

The Arab and Islamic worlds are likely to be destabilized the most by the U.S. war in Iraq. One of the most egregious consequences of the war will be to maximize the political appeal of fundamentalism and fanaticism, at the expense of moderates and reformers in many of these states. U.S.-occupied and otherwise dependent Arab governments will remain tied, to be sure, to U.S. security interests; yet the teeming population of Egypt, for example, will remain angry, resentful, and perhaps even ripe for a 1979, Iranian-style revolution against the U.S.-backed authoritarian government. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the new Iraq itself could be sites of significant political instability. Afghanistan and Pakistan remain unstable states—in the case of the latter, armed with nuclear weapons. The popular resentment the United States has fostered against itself, as well as the regimes it supports in the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, is bound to have significant and unpredictable political consequences.

While the Iraq war threatens to bring greater instability to world politics, it is hard to conceive that it will not contribute to a rise in terrorism as well. Had Washington engaged in countless National Security Council planning sessions, it scarcely could have produced a policy more likely to encourage terrorist attacks than heavy bombing and a ground invasion of an Arab state, no matter how degenerate and ruthless the regime of Saddam Hussein. Americans and Britons must now fear for their safety abroad throughout much of the world. Embassies, military and diplomatic personnel, ships, and foreign installations serve as targets. Potential attackers, many willing to sacrifice their own lives in the process, can be expected to seek out the most devastating weapons they can access and to justify their use with reference to the U.S. devastation of Iraq, including leaving the ancient city of Baghdad in ruins.

The final casualty of the war in Iraq will be the United States itself. The nation faces an unprecedented trade imbalance, a growing national deficit, and costly commitments all over the globe. Billions spent on militarization and new weapons systems, the lifeblood of the post-war economy, deprive the poor and the elderly of aid and other citizens of access to health care, educational opportunity, environmental protection, and a host of additional needed social services. It seems difficult to imagine that the nation can long fend off the economic consequences of global intervention, in a time of the declining national revenues spawned by tax cuts that provide relief primarily to the wealthiest elites. A foreign and domestic policy rife with the array of double standards and contradictions outlined above would seem destined for a certain degree of instability of its own.

Sadly, the public response to the war in Iraq inspires little confidence in the ability of the American people to understand and rein in the nation’s runaway militarism. As in the time of Manifest Destiny, yet in an age of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, the United States finds itself in the iron grip of a national identity closely linked with violent intervention under a discursive regime of promoting freedom “under God.” In the ultimate Orwellian irony, the national-security state sacrifices genuine freedom at home, as evidenced by the perniciously named “USA Patriot” legislation, which strips away fundamental constitutional rights. The expansive and intrusive quest for total “homeland security” is inimical to a free society or even open debate. Captivated by a self-righteous militancy putatively under divine sanction, the United States of America increasingly stands against its own discourse of freedom, both at home and abroad.

(Submitted 11 April 2003)
© The Arab World Geographer

Editorial: Falah 

Contributions: Dalby / Dijkink / Lustick / Hixson / Farhan / Shuraydi / Khashan / Reuber / Sidaway

Commentaries: Wesbter / Murphy / Agnew

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